How Ellen DeGeneres Helped Change The Conversation About Gays
"Ellen DeGeneres is ... almost a litmus test of where we have been as a society," [Dietram Scheufele, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin] says. "When she first came out and really put the issue of same-sex partnerships on people's agendas, and I mean people who really wouldn't have thought about it, I think the country was still in a very different state."
From her first stand-up performance on national TV in the US
in 1986, the same year that the Supreme Court ruled that states have right to enforce code of sexual behavior
, to 2008, when Ellen married Portia de Rossi
, after California's Supreme Court ruled a previous ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional, Ellen's public life has mirrored the broader shift towards accepting homosexuality.
Ellen DeGeneres started out as a stand-up comedian. Her personality was warm and non-threatening. Her comedy was safe.
The same year she appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Bowers v. Hardwick
, in favor of the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults when applied to homosexuals.
In 1994, the first episode
of Ellen the TV sitcom
aired, in which Ellen played a tomboyish character who couldn't find the right guy. Then in February 1996, she played the lead in Mr. Wrong
(full movie; trailer
), in which her husband-to-be isn't what he seems. That Fall, the Defense of Marriage Act
was signed into law by then President Bill Clinton. It was around the same time that there was public speculation on Ellen's sexuality
. In April 1997, Ellen was on the cover of TIME magazine, with the caption "Yep, I'm Gay,"
so the coming out episode of Ellen
a month later (part 1
, part 2
) wasn't too startling. Still, it was't an easy performance for Ellen
, and many people were watching, even in parts of Alabama where the show pulled from the air
. There were even GLAAD promoted "Come Out with Ellen" parties, for which supplies ran low
. Some saw the episode as a publicity stunt
, as there were reportedly 22 lesbian or gay characters in supporting roles on television, and back in 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis, ABC reportedly lost $1 million in advertising when an episode of thirtysomething
showed two gay men in bed together.
Not too surprisingly, some advertisers pulled funding, and even Oprah was a target
after her interview with Ellen
). But the negative attention and loss of advertisers didn't kill her sitcom. The show lasted to 1998, and in 2000, Ellen's 3 and a half year relationship with Anne Heche ended
. The heightened public scrutiny of her personal life lead to Ellen withdrawing for a while
, but not too long. She came back, hosting the Emmys in 2001
, part 3
Ellen came back to television full-time with her own talk show in 2003
. In 2008, she married her girlfriend of four years, Portia de Rossi, and later that year, CoverGirl signed Ellen on as a new spokesperson
, which baffled these CBS News hosts
, as the 50 year old Ellen DeGeneres didn't seem to them to be an obvious fit for a makeup company. But Ellen is still a spokesperson, cheeky as ever
Last February, Ellen entered into a partnership with JC Penney, one of the companies that pulled advertising for her show in 1997
, under pressure from Rev. Donald E. Wildmon and the American Family Association. JC Penney was once again petitioned to break ties with Ellen, but this time, JC Penny stuck with Ellen.